Once we’d gotten the basics of our family farm established—you know, a couple of cows, some piglets, a coopful of laying hens and some meat birds—my wife and I looked around Goldfinch Farm and asked ourselves a dangerous question: “What now?”
At first, we thought we might want some sheep. But the den of coyotes we heard wailing every night from just across the single-lane road, in the woods of our weekend warrior neighbor, put us off that idea. (A helpful county agent seconded this, saying, “You’d pretty much just be feeding the coyotes up here.”)
Then, we became pretty set on getting goats. But another neighbor raised a bunch of the ruminants, and we decided we just didn’t need to listen to more incessant bleating than we already did.
Then, one day it hit us: guineas!
A bit of madness drives a decision to raise guineas.
They’re some strange-looking birds if you’re accustomed to the conventional good looks of chickens, and they can be skittish to the point of offense. Plus, they are prone to raising a serious ruckus.
However, we had some sense behind our madness.
For starters, our first year at Goldfinch Farm had been disquietingly “tick-y,” and we had pulled blood-sucking ectoparasites from our flesh by the handfuls. (Somewhat like this past summer, if you were paying attention to the arachnid population in June and July.)
Heading into our second summer, we decided to be proactive and add a flock of guineas, known for their voracious appetites for the little bugs, to the large flock of free-ranging layer hens (and a few roosters) that roamed our 12 acres.
Second, we’d planned a giant garden behind the farmhouse and were looking to keep leaf- and veggie-
chewing bugs off our plants without suffering the peck-marks that chickens will inflict upon sun-ripened Beefsteaks. We’d heard guinea fowl love to roam between crop rows, picking offending cucumber beetles and cabbage white caterpillars from green leaves, all while keeping growing food intact.
Third, they’re fiercely territorial and can protect a yard from trespassers, and, fourth, guineas provide tasty, lean and protein-heavy meat (eggs, too)—not that we ever got the chance to reap any of these potential benefits.
Mistakes Were Made
Everything went fine at first. (We knew how to raise chicks from our adventures in chickens).
Our 25 birds received the correct feed, and we watched them grow from fuzzy brown chicks (technically termed “keets”) to large and gangly creatures. In time, they moved to a dedicated pen built on an exterior wall of the cattle barn. The birds increased in size while producing a chorus of honks all day long.
Then, one day, we decided to let them out.
Here’s the thing: You can’t just let guineas out of their pen like you would chickens. We did this totally wrong.
The group of birds rushed out of the coop and into the pasture. They pecked around in the grass, gorging themselves on bugs.
It was a wonderful sight that lasted about five minutes—at which point the flock tore toward the woods that edge our farm, dove into the underbrush and disappeared beneath the trees. We heard their honking communications for an hour or so, each sound slightly quieter than the previous one.
Then, they were gone. “They’ll be back tonight,” one of us said unsurely.
They did not come back. Well, four of them did, which we counted a minor victory. But this quartet of guinea hens wasn’t fated for our farm, either.
Not a single one of them re-entered their coop (or allowed us to catch them to take them back). One did roost with the chickens that first night (not ideal, but we allowed it), while the other three perched atop the garden fence.
The next morning, two sat on the fence. The next night, all remaining three perched on the garden fence. Again, two were there in the morning. And so on, until our farm was officially guinea-less.
That’s what not to do with guineas, should you want to actually have some on your farm. Here, gathered from information sources I should have consulted much earlier, are the things you should do.
An Unusual Bird
First, what exactly is a guinea? Despite sometimes being called guinea chickens (also guinea hens and guinea fowl), these birds are hardly the same animal. With their partridge-like bodies and bald heads, they more resemble turkeys. But they aren’t them either.
They’re just guineas, and with an ancient lineage traceable to Africa, that’s what they’ve been for a long time.
There are technically four kinds of guineas (including an eerie, vulture-looking breed), but the most popular for domestication is the helmeted guinea, which has dark legs, a black-and-white-speckled body, and a white, featherless head with bright-red wattles.
The birds were brought to other countries eventually, including Egypt, where they were highly prized. In recent years, guineas have grown in popularity in the U.S. and U.K. for the benefits they bring to farms, chief among them their appetite for bugs (ticks in particular).
They’ll attack and chase away any intruder, including stray dogs and humans (the latter of which can, admittedly, become problematic). And the only things they want out of gardens are the bugs.
They’re also very fast (way too speedy to catch), can soar great distances and go wherever they please—including the chicken coop, neighboring properties and the woods. And they have to be trained, which is the part my family and I failed to do, like, at all.
You can order guinea keets from many of the same hatcheries that send out chicken chicks, and they arrive in the same way: in a box, early at the post office for you to pick up.
The chicks go into a 95-degree brooder, and you’ll drop the temperature five degrees every three days or so. If you’ve raised chickens from chicks, you’ll know the signs of discomfort—clustering under the lamp if it’s too cold, avoiding the lamp and laying down if it’s too hot.
Guineas are game birds, though, and need much more protein than baby chicks. So start them out on a 28 percent game-bird/turkey ration (they prefer crumbles), which is changed to an 18 percent feed when they’re grown.
Avoid giving them cold water—anything cooler than lukewarm can cause a life-threatening chill—and keep their bedding clean and dry. You can move them to a pen once they’re fully feathered, but don’t let them out yet. They need to stay in there for two to four weeks.
As mentioned earlier, if you want to keep your guineas, you have to train them. They might be a domesticated breed, but there’s a lot of wild remaining in these birds.
Left to their own devices, they’ll take to the woods, roost in trees and, in time, get picked off by owls overnight. Handling them from an early age can help with their eventual skittishness, but it won’t stop it. Guineas are just kind of … crazy.
It should be noted that what we did—keeping the birds locked up for weeks, then letting them out during the late afternoon—is the commonly prescribed method for training guineas.
It’s also common for groups to take off into the woods and never come back like ours did. So maybe it’s time to stop recommending this method for training guineas.
To properly train guineas to return to their coop after a long day of eating ticks, chasing postal workers and cleaning up the garden, you have to start by thinking like a guinea.
Guineas are, for lack of a better term, pack animals. Like chickens, it’s uncommon for one of them to take off and explore on their own.
(I mean, we all know that weird hen who hangs out by herself in the woodshed. You could have a guinea like that. But that’s an exception, not the rule.)
The Right Way
So, rather than letting them all out at once to potentially escape the farm as a group, just let one out: Wrangle a guinea, take it outside (being careful to not let others escape) and let it explore the farm.
This lone guinea won’t go far on its own (it might even hang out right beside the coop), but that’s OK. This is about introducing your birds to the experience of being free of the coop.
When evening comes and the chickens head home to roost (assuming you also have chickens; if not, this is around dusk), put the solo guinea back into the coop. The next day, let a different one out.
Keep these one-bird expeditions up until each of the guineas has experienced a day outside of the coop and returned to roost for the night, at which point you’re ready to let the group out for a late-afternoon adventure.
They should return home to roost at night; again, these birds are nowhere near as domesticated as chickens, so one or some may decide to take to a tree when night falls.
But you did what you could.
Guineas are a strange but pretty cool and definitely beneficial addition to any farmstead. Yes, it takes a bit of work to train them, and you’ll need to adjust to their incessant noise-making. But, in the end, they’re fascinating creatures to have around—especially when summer turns tick-y.
Sidebar: A Guinea Symphony
Guineas make noises that are distinct from the sounds their distant avian relatives and common barnyard residents, the chickens, are prone to make. There’s no “cock-a-doodle-do” or even guttural murmuring to these birds.
Once you bring guineas to you farm, you’ll hear a constant chattering as they move in a group across the yard. These sounds are determined by their sex.
Females: Guinea hens make a two-syllable sound that people compare to the words “buckwheat” or “come back.” To me it sounds like a rusty door swinging back and forth. But the point is, it’s a two-part sound.
Males: Roosters can only make a one-syllable sound, which the hens are also capable of. It’s a “kik-kik-kik” sound, and they will do it pretty much nonstop.
Guineas are loud birds. There’s just no getting around that.
If you like hearing animals making incessant noises on a lazy summer day or think you could get used to it, guineas could be for you. If you like a quiet, bucolic farm that quivers under the influence of a gentle breeze … well, I hear quail are nice.